15 March 2013

Why do you laugh at the fat people?

Hamburger Queen is well underway and last night's show was electrifying.

As regular readers will know, this season I am honoured to serve as Hamburger Queen's in-house psychotherapist. I really honour the work that Scottee and Amy have done with these sessions. I think the complexity they bring to the question of fat identity, and their sheer realness about it, is very powerful. It makes space for other people in the world who can't live up to the nonsense poster queen myth of the perfect fat activist. I will be doing a bigger round-up sometime soon, but for now I want to talk about something that happened last night.

In Why Are You Fat? #2, both Scottee and Amy Lamé recount difficult and painful moments in their lives, which they think have a significant bearing on why they are fat.

Hamburger Queen is a riotous affair, people are drinking, and this video presented a dramatic change in mood. There are some good lines, but I don't think of this video as funny at all. The stories are about fear, panic, vulnerability, shame. What's funny about that? Not much, not anything. Yet a small clutch of people in the audience laughed, they laughed throughout, even at the most difficult disclosures.

Fat people experience hatred in many forms. Sometimes it's pity, other times prurience. It can be physical, it can take the form of name-calling or physical assaults. But mostly it's more subtle, like the systematic denial that we are even people that plays out in a thousand daily micro-aggressions. But laughter, that's a headfuck, to use the official terminology.

To be laughed at when you are disclosing deep trauma that has been compounded by shame is a particular kind of violence against the self that is profoundly disturbing. It says, to me, "everything you are is a joke, there is nothing of substance about you, your deepest pain is a triviality." It's the laughter of annihilation.

I found the laughter last night shocking, but not surprising, it's a depressingly familiar experience. Fat people are supposed to be funny. Being funny is a survival strategy for many of us, and a lot of famous fat people got that way because they had a knack for being hilarious. I suppose what we witnessed last night was a shadow side to this jolly stereotype.

But being able to turn the laughter around is a powerful weapon against hate. I try and do that with my own activism, and Hamburger Queen is a weekly masterclass in this tactic. Last night it was the fatsos not the laughers who called the shots. When you're in a room full of people – of all sizes too! – who love their fat friends, love fat spectacle, love being together, it makes it easier to see that the ones who are laughing inappropriately are probably doing so because their minds are being blown and they don't know how else to cope but gibber helplessly. When you're in a room of people who want to see fat people thrive, and are appalled by the people who laugh at us meanly, it makes it easier to call out a small group of thoughtless people. So we called them out and they stopped laughing.


4 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is a great post. I 'discovered' fat acceptance (or whatever you'd like to call it) about two years ago when I read Linda Bacon's HAES book and I've been reading various FA blogs for about a year now but I really like your blog, it is deeper and more raw than the American blogs.

I've been fat since I was five and I've never been the jolly fattie, what is there to be jolly about. I was bullied as a child (not just verbally but really kicked, pushed, spat at) and now, as an adult, I still sometimes get called names on the street, nothing funny about that.

Scottee's story is absolutely shocking, it makes me angry and sad. How did the people who were laughing reacted when they were called out? It makes me wonder what they were doing there, do they even know what Burger Queen is about.

Lily Strange said...

"To be laughed at when you are disclosing deep trauma that has been compounded by shame is a particular kind of violence against the self that is profoundly disturbing. It says, to me, "everything you are is a joke, there is nothing of substance about you, your deepest pain is a triviality." It's the laughter of annihilation."

Thank you for those words. This is just how I've always felt all my life. I wasn't always fat, but I always felt like my feelings didn't count. My father didn't mean to do it, but he often trivialized things that were really painful to me. That has stuck with me.

fflo said...

I'm reminded somehow of the laughter of people new to recovery meetings---laughing as they speak of their own trauma. How it can take a while for them even to notice that the others around them aren't laughing, that's there's no need for that shield in this new place, that these other people have learned to speak of and hear of terrible things and not laugh, even if the speaker herself is laughing.

I hear what you're saying (and yes and dammit) on the knee-jerk laughter and expectation of humor/self-deprecation from the/us fatties. But I think too of general discomfort with people speaking of personal horrors, not socially coded with a prescribed tone of reaction (like starving children in commercials or the people killed in a mass shooting or such). So I comment just to pipe up with something about lots of us having a hard time learning how to respond with/in an appropriate emotional tone while taking in what's really being said.

I woulda been livid, though, had I been there, I bet, witnessing that laughing.

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks all.

fflo, yeah, 'appropriate' is a slippery concept. I think you're right in that this small group of people didn't know what else to do. It's really shocking to witness though.